Friday, May 13, 2011

Dilemmas and the difficulty of being wise

A few months ago I blogged about the concept of "practical wisdom" and linked to a TED talk by Barry Schwartz in which he describes this idea.

I started reading Schwartz' book earlier this week and have enjoyed it thus far.  One of the arguments made by Schwartz and co-author Ken Sharpe is that the rules we make to "simplify" or systematize decisions or actions will often fail us.  It was an idea that made perfect sense to me and, at least once, I had the thought "People (not me) are stupid.  Why can't they be more wise and stop holding on to their rules so rigidly."  Then, today, I had an experience that reminded me how hard it is to be wise.  

Each year at this time, my department interviews and hires a large number of undergraduate peer mentors to work with freshmen students during the coming academic year.  Like most departments, we have a formal application process and have developed policies to help us make decisions about who to hire (e.g. minimum GPA of 3.4, completed core first-year requirements, not a felon, etc.).  Most of the time the system we have put in place is actually quite helpful in (1) winnowing the list and (2) making distinctions between applicants.  One of the "requirements" that we have held to in the past is that anyone we hire must be able to attend our "mandatory" week-long training workshop held a few weeks before the fall semester begins.  We do this because we believe that the training we provide is beneficial for the students we hire and (I think) that a student's attendance at five days of eight hour training is a sign that they are committed to our program.  Anecdotally, I can say that the things peer mentors learn during this week and the social connections they forge with their peers and supervisors are critical to their success and the overall success of our program.  So, in general, it is a pretty good policy to require peer mentors to attend.

Well, about an hour ago we interviewed a candidate who I feel comfortable saying is the strongest applicant we have had among nearly 100 that we have interviewed.  He is a deep learner.  He is personable and has an almost unmatched social ease.  He has remarkably pure intentions for wanting to work for us.  And, his father is a faculty member here who has been a friend of our department for years.  The problem--he is getting married on August 12th and will be away from campus until August 20th, and our "mandatory" training begins on August 17th.  

So, my colleagues on the selection committee have a couple of choices:  (a) We stick to our guns and let him know that, because he cannot attend the training, we can't offer him a position; or (b) We make an exception to the policy and hire him.

I'm torn.  I actually knew before he interviewed this afternoon, that he had a conflict with the training.  I hoped that the interview would be lousy and it would be an easy decision for us.  We weren't that lucky.  What complicates things even more is the fact that we have told other applicants with similar conflicts  (far less prepared, impressive, and qualified applicants mind you) that we couldn't hire them.  We even told another student, who was a peer mentor for the last year, that because she wouldn't be back from her study abroad trip until after training was over, that she couldn't come back and work for us.

So, now that I'm facing a situation that requires the type of "practical wisdom" Schwartz calls for, I'm realizing that it's not just stupid people that struggle with these things, it's all of us.  I really have no idea what we're going to do, but here are some things that I think will guide us.

1.  Past experience.  There was a time when we didn't have a hard and fast "you can't miss training" policy.  It would be instructive for us to think about students who missed training and then look at how effective they were in their role as peer mentors.  If, in the past, we've gotten burned then we might take that as fair warning.  If, on the other hand, there have been highly effective peer mentors that missed all or part of training, maybe we need to rethink our policy (and design better training).

2.  Empathy & perspective.  Seeing the situation from a variety of vantage points (the student we interviewed, the student on study abroad that we decided not to take back for next year, the loyal faculty member father) will help us create a clearer picture of the nuances of the situation.  And, it will likely help us be more "human" in our decision.  For example, how would we feel if we were "punished" for getting married and taking a honeymoon (which is a particularly interesting question for us to ask given the emphasis our university's sponsoring institution places on marriage and family).  How would we feel if we were a peer mentor who had cancelled a family vacation or ended an internship early in order to attend training, only to find out that one of our peers was given the luxury of coming three days late?

3.  Thinking outside of the box.  It's very possible that we are thinking about this in overly black-and-white terms.  It may not be an issue of hire him or don't hire him.  Rather, there are probably a lot of ways that he could become involved with our department, without being hired as a peer mentor (the policy only applies to peer mentors).  For example, he could work in a volunteer capacity, could work in a specialized role under the direction of a staff member (he brings a great deal of media and technology experience with him that we could likely use), he could work as a research assistant for a semester and then become a peer mentor.

So, for the four people that actually read this blog (and that might be generous), what would you do?  Are there other guiding principles we could use to help us in our decision?